In this talk, Robert Gupta, violinist and member of the LA Philharmonic, discusses his personal experiences in deciding to turn to music after completing a pre-med undergraduate degree. Gupta has strong assertions about the important role music can play in the lives of the mentally ill, and how his personal experiences have Gupta exemplified this assertion.
Gupta begins by describing his response to a video of Gabrielle Gibbons, the US Congresswoman who was shot in Tuscon last November, as she struggles to regain her control of speech after damage to the left hemisphere.(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tiJ9X_wLSWM&feature=endscreen&NR=1) The video is very emotionally charged, and Gibbons is seen crying in frustration while working with her therapist. Miraculously, moments later, she is able to sing "This Little Light of Mine" with the help of her therapist.
At the age of 17, Gupta decides to visit prominent neuroscientist Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, himself a former organist. He describes how Schlaug gives him an overview of some of the most exciting research being done surrounding music and the brain, including the ability of sufferers of an aphasic stroke being able to sing through the favourite songs, allowing the brain to create an almost new speech centre in the right hemisphere. Schlaug gives Gupta many examples of how music could be - and has been - used in helping patients with Alzheimer's and children with autism. Ultimately, Schlaug advises Gupta that while "medical school can wait, the violin will not[,]" and Gupta lands his first orchestral position with the LA Philharmonic.
A year later, Gupta comes across a man named Nathaniel Ayers - homeless and living on the street, but with a very unique story. Ayers entered Julliard in the 70's as a double-bass player, but when his schizophrenia and psychotic episodes began to take hold, he dropped out, and eventually wound up living on the streets of LA, still playing a violin. Nathaniel Ayers himself became very famous, especially after the release of the movie "The Soloist", which is based on his story. (http://www.youtube.com/movie?v=eHJ0GrYCHJQ&feature=mv_sr) Gupta takes Ayers on as a student, stating "wherever he had his violin, and wherever I had mine, I would play a lesson with him."
Seeing Ayers on skid row, Gupta recounts his frustration at how many people there must be aside from Ayers living on the street because of mental illnesses but who were "never going to have a book or a movie made about them to [get] them off the streets[.]" Gupta takes this newly found outrage and pours it into his project, the Street Symphony, which was an organization beginning in Skid Row that brought classical music to the homeless and mentally ill in homes, hospitals and clinics. He recounts a woman approaching him after a concert, describing how she had never heard classical music before but that it sounded "like sunshine," and how no one ever came to visit the patients at the hospital. She suffered from a palsy, but during the concert her shaking stopped - the first time this had happened without medication in 6 years.
In the end, Gupta extols the virtues of bringing classical music to these audiences that might never have access to it in the way that we do, and how important a role musicians can play in the therapeutic delivery of our talents. He culminates this belief in this statement:
around them, to remember that they still have the capacity to experience something beautiful and that
humanity has not forgotten them. And the spark of that beauty, the spark of that humanity transforms
thing we must instill within our communities, within our audiences, if we want to inspire healing from
Although this was certainly not the most "technical" of lectures I've seen on the relationship between music and the brain, I found Gupta's words to ring extremely true in terms of our responsibility as musicians to more than just the concert hall audiences. It is such an unfortunate circumstance that so many mentally ill or otherwise disabled people that would benefit so greatly from exposure to music, let alone music therapy, are unable to because of social or financial boundaries. It would be wonderful to see more organizations like Street Symphony pop up for all the good that they do and for the sake of bringing musical beauty into the lives of those who may most need reminding of the beauty in life.
I actually found the small amount of footage from Youtube (linked above) about Gabrielle Gibbons and her recovery to be very moving. I can't even begin to grasp how frustrating that struggle with words must be, and it was overwhelming to hear her singing along with such determination. To me, the fact that such a thing is even possible hints at the potentially limitless applications of music therapy in guiding the recovery of so many different kinds of brain damage. If we can access words through singing but not through speaking, would a pianist suffering from fine motor damage still be able to navigate through a familiar piece of music if it had been learned to the point of "auto-pilot"? In any case, the really important message seems to be one of endless possibilities, and it's hard not to feel overwhelmingly optimistic.